New tax law affects farmers

On Dec. 18, President Barack Obama signed into law a massive bill authorizing $1.1 trillion in federal spending and $680 billion in tax cuts. While we have become accustomed to waiting until year-end (or sometimes the new year) to see already expired tax cuts temporarily revived, this law makes permanent (or largely extends) several important tax breaks.

New tax law affects farmers

On Dec. 18, President Barack Obama signed into law a massive bill authorizing $1.1 trillion in federal spending and $680 billion in tax cuts. While we have become accustomed to waiting until year-end (or sometimes the new year) to see already expired tax cuts temporarily revived, this law makes permanent (or largely extends) several important tax breaks.

The Protecting Americans From Tax Hikes Act of 2015 is different from its predecessors. The act provides certainty for farm producers and others who often base buying or investing decisions on their tax consequences.

Signed into law almost one year to the date after last year’s Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014, the new act permanently implements, instead of temporarily resurrects, several provisions of particular interest to farm producers.

Law’s effect on farming

Following is our summary of the new act’s key provisions:

Section 179 deduction. Perhaps most important to farmers is that the new act permanently implements an enhanced Section 179 deduction, sometimes called expense method depreciation. As of Jan. 1, 2015, this deduction decreased to $25,000, with an investment ceiling of only $200,000. Amending Internal Revenue Code § 179, the new act allows farmers and small businesses to deduct $500,000 of the tax basis of certain business property or equipment during the year in which the property was placed into service.

The spending cap is increased from $200,000 to $2 million, meaning the deduction will begin a dollar-for-dollar phaseout only when the taxpayer spends more than $2 million on qualifying assets. These changes are implemented with a retroactive effective date of Jan. 1, 2015. Future amounts will be indexed for inflation.

Although last year’s Tax Increase Prevention Act of 2014 ultimately allowed the same enhanced $500,000 deduction, the enhancement was effective for only the 2014 tax year. In other words, once the 2014 act became law, the enhanced deduction was in place for only 12 days before expiring yet again. This was actually an improvement from the 2013 bill that restored certain deductions (including an enhanced §179 deduction) for a two-year period beginning with the 2012 tax year. The 2013 bill was not enacted into law until the 2012 tax year had already ended.

The 2015 act (by making the enhanced §179 deduction permanent) ends the uncertainty accompanying large purchase decisions. This uncertainty had become the norm for small businesses and farmers.

“Thinking” that a tax break will be restored is different from “knowing” that it has been restored. Thus, the new legislation finally supports the actual purpose of the enhanced tax deduction: to stimulate economic investment. This purpose is wholly thwarted when the tax break is not defined until it’s too late to even use it.

Farm producers, in particular, can take advantage of the enhanced §179 deduction when they purchase machinery and equipment, office equipment, livestock, grain bins, and single-purpose agricultural structures such as hog barns. The deduction applies to purchases of new or used equipment. To claim the enhanced deduction for the 2015 tax year, the equipment or property must have been placed in service in 2015 — ready for use in the taxpayer’s trade or business.

50% bonus depreciation. The new act also restores 50% bonus depreciation but only for a time. This tax benefit had also expired at the end of 2014. Unlike the enhanced §179 deduction, however, 50% bonus depreciation has not been extended permanently. Instead, Congress has chosen to phase out this benefit over a five-year period.

Under this provision, producers can claim an additional first-year tax deduction equal to 50% of the value of qualifying property during tax years 2015 through 2017. Congress has then reduced the depreciation amounts to 40% in 2018 and 30% in 2019. Bonus depreciation is slated to disappear altogether for property placed into service in 2020 or later.

The bonus depreciation deduction, which is available only for new property, applies to farm buildings in addition to equipment. Unlike the §179 expense allowance, there is no limit on the overall amount of bonus depreciation that a producer may claim. If an item of property qualifies for both §179 expensing and bonus depreciation, the §179 expensing amount is computed first, and then bonus depreciation is taken based on the item’s remaining income tax basis.

It is also important to note that §179 expensing is based on when the taxpayer’s tax year begins, whereas bonus depreciation is tied to the calendar year.

Other important provisions. The act also permanently extends several long-offered provisions important to individuals. These include the enhanced child tax credit ($1,000 per qualifying child), the enhanced earned income tax credit, and the enhanced American Opportunity Tax Credit ($2,500 for four years of college expenses). Congress has also made permanent a provision granting teachers a $250 deduction for supplies purchased for their K-12 classrooms. This deduction is indexed for inflation.

Also permanently extended by the new act is the option to allow taxpayers to claim state and local sales tax instead of state and local income tax as an itemized deduction. Although this provision generally benefits those taxpayers from states without a state or local income tax, it can also benefit taxpayers who make a large purchase in a given tax year.

The new act also permanently extends a key tax break for charitable giving. It allows taxpayers ages 70.5 and older to make tax-free distributions from their IRAs to a qualified charity. This provision applies to distributions up to $100,000 per taxpayer (per spouse for married taxpayers that file as married filing jointly). Distributions in excess of the dollar limit still qualify as an itemized charitable deduction. The taxpayer, however, must claim this excess distribution as income.

This is a summary of a few provisions from the new act that are most applicable to farm producers. The full legislation contains many additional tax and spending provisions. If you’re looking for a little new year’s reading, access the 887-page tome by searching for the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2016 on congress.gov.

Tidgren is staff attorney for the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University. Visit calt.iastate.edu.

A mixed bag for ag

Congress passed an omnibus spending bill and a tax extenders bill before leaving for Christmas. Both bills went to President Obama for quick signing. The good news is the budget cuts in the spending bill don’t hit agriculture too hard, and the tax bill includes important provisions for farmers.

The tax bill has dozens of tax credits and tax-related provisions ranging from wind and solar to a tax credit for biodiesel, in addition to key items covering the use of depreciation. Farm and renewable energy organizations are happy with the tax credits related to renewable energy. Tax credits for electric power projects using wind turbines and solar energy are included.

The renewal of the biodiesel tax credit is good news, say Iowa biodiesel producers. However, they were pushing for a switch from a blender’s credit to a producer’s credit, which would have meant the tax credit would only have gone to U.S.-produced biodiesel. As it stands, the credit can also be used for imported biodiesel. Making the change to a producer’s credit would have saved the government money and would have benefited U.S. biodiesel producers.

Ag groups have disagreed over enforcement of country-of-origin labeling on meat products sold in the U.S. An announcement by the World Trade Organization saying it would allow trade sanctions by Canada and Mexico against the U.S. led to language in the spending bill repealing COOL. Some farm groups are disappointed. Other provisions include lifting a federal ban on exporting oil and providing $21.8 billion for USDA program spending.

This article published in the January, 2016 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2016.

Tax/Estate Management

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